On this Labor Day weekend, I’d like to offer the song “Joe Hill” to all my union-supporting friends, and share the story of the man who helped me as a union organizer in what seem another lifetime ago.
Joe Hill came to the United States from Sweden and worked on railroads and in the mines. He joined the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World (known as the “Wobblies”) in hopes to unionize all workers for a better living wages and conditions.
He wrote songs and poems, which were published throughout the states. They included “The Preacher and the Slave” (in which he created the phrase “pie in the sky”), “The Tramp“, “There is Power in a Union“, “The Rebel Girl“, and “Casey Jones—the Union Scab“, which expressed the harsh but combative life of itinerant workers, and call for workers to organize their efforts to improve working conditions. of all workers.
Hill was convicted of two murders in a controversial trial. Following an unsuccessful appeal, political debates, and international calls for clemency from high-profile figures and workers’ organizations, Hill was executed in November 1915.
After his death, he was memorialized by several folk songs, including the one below, which Joan Baez sang at Woodstock in 1969. I listened to it when I was organizing newspapers in the mid-1980s in Reading, Pa, Atlantic City, NJ and in West Chester, Pa, and I always got a chill, particularly when Joe Hill says what they couldn’t kill “went on to organize.”
Give a listen!